Saturday, October 13, 2007

Buy the book!

UCSF Science and F...
By Julie Pinkston and...

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Day 18 - The Long Voyage Home

After a fairly good night of sleep (interrupted only by the sound of waves crashing on the beach, and at one point, the sounds of Jorge chasing off a couple of other dogs), we woke up refreshed and relaxed. We only had a couple hours of driving left to get back to Santiago, and our flight did not leave until 10pm. So, we were again going to take our time, following the coast through small towns.

We enjoyed a small breakfast at our nice garden picnic table, again attended to by our good doggie friend Jorge. He was again more interested in any attention that we'd give him than any food we'd offer. It was clear that he was looking for a nice home to be a part of.

Image hosted by

This point was made crystal clear by his reaction when he saw us packing our bags. His face dropped, and he started rubbing against Julie as if he were an overfriendly cat. When we loaded the bags in the car, he started some desperate begging, last-minute pleas to take him with us. We briefly considered how we could get him through customs, but decided that in this age of national security he probably didn't stand much of a chance. So, we reluctantly jumped in the car, readying ourselves to leave.

And then he jumped in the car, too!

Image hosted by

As sad as we were to have to leave him behind, now we had to actively get rid of him. We decided to first have one more run with him on the beach. So we drove a few hundred yards down the road to the public beach, and jumped out, hoping he'd again stay by our sides, and follow us out onto the sand.

He did, and after he ran off to say hi to one of his dog buddies from the previous night, we ran and jumped back in the car. He caught up to us before we got in, and we had to do a pull a little trickery to get in and the doors closed before he could follow us.

We held back emotions as we pulled away. True to his loyal spirit, he chased the car with all of his speed for at least 100 yards down the road before finally giving up. Jorge was a good dog.

We drove on, passing through a few more coastal towns that confirmed we'd found an excellent choice for our last night. We'd initially been considering Horcon, which was recommended on a website as a beautiful, sleepy, fishing village. It was nice, but lacked (at least from what we saw) the same beachfront options that we'd had.

Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the north end of Vina del Mar, which we had visited a couple weeks earlier with the whole group. It really is a beautiful city, and the rocky shores right by the road on the north end of the city were amazing.

After a stop for some real coffee at the same cafe that we'd rested at following our daytrip to Vina, we drove on. We had plans to stop at one more place in Valparaiso, a local artisans market. Nearing the supposed location (as designated in the Lonely Planet book -- which we were beginning to view with a fair amount of skepticism), we pulled up for Chilean metered parking.

No parking meters required. Again, the abundance of labor was clear, as two men helped us to document our arrival time, and confirmed the price of parking. Despite the stated similarities between Valparaiso and San Francisco, the 300 pesos per hour that we paid is far less than a downtown San Francisco parking meter.

We finally found the market, and left only after making a purchase that would test our turista mettle on the return flight. We bought a large piggy bank. Handmade of glazed ceramic, with a body the size of a soccer ball, and sure to aggravate fellow passengers fighting for overhead compartment space. But he was ridiculously cute, and given the name Jorge in honor of our recently abandoned friend.

After a few Coquimbo-like maneuvers dodging pedestrians we made it out of Valparaiso, cruising on the homestretch toward Santiago.

We made it back into town and back to Pablo's apartment, taking a detour to hit the artisan's market at Las Dominicas. I swear, this will be the last mention of artisan's markets. We'd wanted to buy some candies for our labs (people are always bringing back sweets or other delicacies from their various travels).

We repacked our bags, and bought one last authentic Chilean meal before our flight home. Subway - Eat Fresh. We learned that they call the orange cheese at Subway in Chile 'cheddar' instead of 'american'. Yes, sadly, we succumbed to our desires for something from home, and we even guiltily sipped down another sin after stopping at Starbucks. Never underestimate the allure of familiarity (or is it the power of marketing...)

You know how I said to trust your navigator a few posts back? Yeah, you really should. A few bungled directions resulted in us getting to the airport just an hour and a half before departure. Luckily, the car return was a snap:
Them: Tienen problemas?
Us: No, no problemas. (believe it or not, we'd been told after getting the tire fixed at the La Serena Budget rent a car to tell them that everything was fine)
Them: Esta bien.

We wrestled our giant bags up to the check-in desk. We sweated through departing customs (Julie had somehow lost a form which was -- despite the concerning words of the Delta agent -- completely dispensible). We stumbled through the Duty-Free area. We filed on to the plane and delicately balanced the new Jorge above us. And then we collapsed in our seats. We were wiped out.

All in all, it was an amazing trip. We'd been extremely fortunate with the weather, and all plans and accomodations had worked out quite well.

If anyone were to ask what we could have done differently to make it a better trip, there is only one thing that I can think of:
We would not have watched the in-flight movie on the return flight. Truly. Avoid "My Super Ex-girlfriend" at all costs.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Day 17 - Seeing The Sights

Image hosted by

From La Serena back to Santiago is really only about a 5 hour drive, if you're avoiding scenic vistas and tourist traps, or flat tires on windy mountain roads. Clearly we didn't avoid the latter on the way north, and it was our goal to fully embrace the former on the way south.

Having consulted the Lonely Planet guidebook (though with a bit more caution following the Hurtado near-disaster), and talking with Victor some about other nearby things to do (he, in addition to leading tours of Isla Damas on the weekends is a student majoring in Tourism in La Serena), we had a few of ideas of things to see. After a couple of quick stops to walk around the Plaza de Armas, and to get our flat tire repaired (30 minutes and US$4!), we were on our sight-seeing way.

Image hosted by

Our first stop was in Coquimbo, the city just south of La Serena. But really, it was visible from La Serena. Victor had recommended it with some reservation, but we wanted to check it out for ourselves. It was, as you likely know if you are expert in extraordinarily large religious monuments, the Cruz del Tercero Milenio (Cross of the third millenium). And if you recognize the name, you may also know that it is the largest religious monument in the world.

Image hosted by

It is also very, very creepy. Not because of any qualms with Christianity's goodwill being hijacked for less than noble purposes recently. I'd like to say that it was a marvel of engineering, and a spectacular monument, but there is little that seems majestic about a concrete cross towering 98 meters over some of the most ramshackle slums we'd seen in Chile. There was some kind of strange disconnect there. Maybe I'm just not accustomed to religious monuments with gift shops selling t-shirts, buttons, and ashtrays.

Or maybe it's just the two hours that we spent trying to get out of Coquimbo that spoiled the sight of the cross for me. We'd decided to wait until after getting out of Coquimbo to stop for lunch (Lonely Planet had a recommendation for us), so we were short on energy to deal with the maddening crowds of people rushing across the downtown streets. Somehow, the only ways that we kept attempting to get back to the highway led us past the cross again and again (though we did come across the cool Fuerte Coquimbo).

Image hosted by

Eventually, though, the one way streets, clutch-smoking hills, and detours relented and we did get back on the highway south. Another 40 kilometers or so, and we'd reached Guanaqueros, our destination for lunch. After multiple meals over the last few days involving seafood, we were both looking forward to some land-based entrees. The name was something like El Pequeno Restaurant, and despite its misleading name (it was quite large and spacious), it did not let us down. Julie had the Chilean staple Carne Mechada, and I had the delicous Pollo Asado. Very, very satisfying. We were happy and full, and got back on the road.

Our next stop on the Tour of Small Towns Between La Serena and Santiago was Tongoy, a small town that was supposed to feature a great artisan's market. Trouble is, Lonely Planet neglected to tell us that it was an artisan's market half of the days of the week, and a fruit market on the remaing half. So, we got to see the last few minutes of the fruit market, which was probably more (pardon me) fruitful than more shopping for knick knacks. We did get to sample some unknow fruit which was very tasty.

Our goal for the night was to find a fitting end for our trip in Chile. Ideally, we were thinking beachfront cabaña, but luxurious hotel or unique bed and breakfast were also options. In order to cut down the amount of driving that we'd need to do on the day of our flight out of the country, we chose to cover a bit more ground, and stay somewhere between Los Vilos and Viña Del Mar.

Driving along the coast reminded me a lot of the Pacific Coast Highway. And Zapallar is the more wooded Malibu of the Chilean coast. Gorgeous mansions tucked between trees overlooking magnificently crashing waves on rocky shores. It was stunning, and presumably way out of our price range for the night (though we couldn't find any hotels to say for sure).

A couple of towns farther down, our dreams came true. We pulled into Maitencillo, a town with a myriad of hotel and cabaña options. We stopped to look at a few before seeing one that looked perfect. We pulled the car into the thatch-covered garage and stepped out to take a look. Opening the creaky gate we stepped into the perfect garden facing out to the beach. Not seeing anyone around, and fearing any guard animals, we quietly peeked into the cabins, before spotting a gardener at the corner of the yard.

The gardener turned out to also be the owner, and after a surprisingly short registration process (just write your name in the notebook!) we had an amazing room for the night. Or rather, we had an amazing kitchen, living room, bathroom and two(!) bedrooms.

Shelter arranged, we set out to get some food for the night. Amazingly, we were again able to get exactly what we were looking for. The local supermarket (three short aisles) had everything we needed -- wine, salame, cheese, and crackers. We went back to the cabin to watch the sunset, enjoy our dinner, and savor our last night in Chile.

Image hosted by

During dinner we had the good fortune of meeting a kind and loyal soul. Jorge.

At first, we assumed that Jorge (say 'hor-hay') was like any other stray dog, only interested in our food (and scaring off the owner's cat). But the salame that we tossed him did not interest him nearly as much as the few pets that we gave him after dinner. A walk down the beach solidified the relationship, as he took off chasing birds and barked at other dogs, then returned to loyally stroll with us.

As we snuggled into bed, we reflected on the amazing past few weeks, safe and sound, knowing that Jorge was sleeping on the stoop protecting our door.

La Serena pictures:

Coquimbo pictures:

Cabin pictures:

Day 16 continued - The Islands

Better late than never, we were quite excited to be finally getting on a boat heading out to Isla Choros and Isla Damas. And with regards to the weather, it was better late than early. While the morning had been quite gray and overcast, the sun had since broken through the clouds.

Image hosted by

All in all, there were 15 (safe, lifejacket-wearing) passengers on the 25' wooden boat heading out to the island. Lacking the motor power to really get up on plane, we were splashing through the chop, our island destination growing larger by the minute. Although the air was warm, the breeze and water were fairly cool, and we were glad when they hauled out a sheet of weatherproof plastic to help keep us dry.

During the voyage out, our guides -- now two fisherman operating the boat, plus Victor -- talked a little bit about the islands, a little more about the locos, and brought out a few starfish picked off the bottom of the sound. Unfortunately, between the puttering of the boat motor, and the motorboat pace of their spanish syllables, we didn't catch much of their speech. We were still just thrilled to be on a boat, heading to where we wanted to be.

Pulling up to the first island, Isla Choros, was something like being gradually brought closer and closer, and eventually being stuck right in the middle of the coolest zoo exhibit you've ever seen. One rocky bluffs on either side of the boat were dozens of sea lions! One, el macho (the alpha-male) clearly towered over all the others (mostly hembres -- females), with a head the size of a grand-prize winning pumpkin. This thing was huge.

El Macho:
Image hosted by

Mostly, they behaved fairly similar to their Pier 39-inhabiting brethren that we see in San Francisco, but they were soooo close. No binoculars required here. There were multiple ages and sizes, and when they barked, you could practically smell their fish breath (and you could certainly see bloody fish remnants in a few of their mouths).

On bluffs above the sea lions (or sea wolves, if you take the direct translation from spanish), were hundreds of nesting boobies. Complete with their beady eyes, seemingly overflexible necks, and blue/gray feet, the watched over us as we motored into and then out of the rocky cove.

Backtracking a bit, but much closer to the shoreline, we caught sight of some black and white creatures scrambling along the shoreline. Pinguinos!

We got our first sights of some of Humboldt's Penguins along the low rocks of the island. Humboldt's Penguins are some of the northernmost penguins, found farther north of Magellan's Penguins that we'd seen in Punta Arenas. Despite the human preference for shellfish in the region (or at least the season), Humboldt's Penguins prefer the schools of fish that hang out in the currents that swirl around the islands.

Moving a bit farther down the shoreline, our guides began pointing out penguins high on rocky bluffs and standing along gravelly trails. Penguins can climb! And climb quite well, considering how unadapted they seem for land. At a couple times, we saw them scrambling, hopping, flopping and bouncing up the loose rocks and boulders on the face of the island. Now that is cute.

Jumping back to my previous zoo analogy, Isla Choros looks like the most perfect rocky island replica you've ever seen. Craggy bluffs, archways, outcropping islands. It was fantastic.

Before moving on to Isla Damas, we were treated with a few more documentary-perfect natural moments: A juvenile sea lion jumped in the water to chase the boat (only to receive a harsh barking scolding from its mother), we pulled into a natural archway bound by many hundreds of boobies and containing many hundreds of a local type of rock bass, and we saw a jelly fish cruising alongside a bed of kelp.

Image hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by

Isla Choros Pictures:

The wildlife of Isla Choros was matched in splendor by starkness of Isla Damas. People are allowed in small numbers onto the island of Isla Damas (to restrict these numbers is the reason that you must register with CONAF -- the park service -- before heading out on a boat). So we pulled up to the pier in perhaps the most beautiful setting that I'd ever seen. The waters , rimmed by a crystalline white beach, were fairly shallow, with remarkable clarity, and in the afternoon sun, reflected a brilliant blue.

We got off the boat, dropped our lifevests, and followed Victor and the group around for a quick tour of the island. Despite its tropical-looking waters around it, the island itself is quite desolate. Even when up in the mountains just east of Vicuna, we didn't see nearly as many different types of cactus (maybe our eyes were too narrowly focused on the rocky road...).

Image hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by

A hike to the highest point on the island, which is also home to the lighthouse, gave us another spectacular 360 degrees of views.

A few of those degrees:
Image hosted by Image hosted by

Plus a few others:

Fully satisfied after an incredible day of socializing, scenery, and sun, we drove back to La Serena.

Still quite full of delicious seafood from lunch, we opted for a light dinner from a nearby cafe. And still full of amazing sea sights from the afternoon, we decided to skip a trip up to the mountain observatories and instead enjoy a relaxing night.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Day 16 - Locos!

Image hosted by

Part of the reason that we'd needed to get money out of the ATM the night before was to pay for our day tour to Isla Damas and Isla Choros. "Hostal Jofre", in addition to providing cheap (but poorly appointed) rooms and hamburger buns for breakfast, arranges tours to some of the attractions near to La Serena.

Lacking the mental capacity when we arrived in town to want to think about planning it ourselves, we'd tried to book the day tour to Isla Damas through Jofre, which we needed some extra cash to pay for. As it turns out, though, the tour was cancelled, because the boat that was to be used was not available the next day. Why?


More on Locos in a minute. For now, let me first explain a little bit about how the tours are arranged. Some kind of transportation is required to get you to the small port of Caleta Los Choros, about 120 km north of La Serena. There, local fishermen in Los Choros ferry tourists out from the port, cruise around Isla Choros, and then dock at Isla Damas, where people are allowed ashore.

These two steps are usually arranged by a tour company, but after the Jofre tour fell through, we decided to take it upon ourselves. We drove up to Los Choros, including another 20 km on another dirt road. This was a bit of a risk, not just because we hadn't yet fixed the flat tire, but also because it was a Sunday, and things generally shut down on Sundays. But we'd read reports online before we left that people had been able to go out on tours on Sundays, and we were willing to be patient (of course despite our stated patience, we left the hostel before 7am just to make sure that we'd be first in line).

Image hosted by

Loco, you may recall from earlier posts was a delicious shellfish that we had a first taste of in Puerto Natales. It is also a lucrative export, and a sensitive species. Combine these features with the practical Chilean government, and you end up with the following situation (as it was explained to us -- in Spanish that we understood! -- by Fernando, who was helping to secure us a tour boat):

Locos abalone used to be plentiful, but lack of regulation led to overharvesting and low numbers. To combat this, the government imposed strict regulations that limit commercial Locos gathering to 12 days per year. Japanese restaurant importers, who 'don't value money' (according to Fernando), pay a relative fortune for the Locos, so the 12 days of Loco harvesting each year are very, very important to the local fishermen.

As you may have guessed by now, it was during this 12 day stretch that we were in Chile. And during this time, a boat's time is much more well spent ferrying locos and divers gathering locos than tourists. So we were without a boat to take us out to the islands.

So, also, were two other tour groups. Hiring a boat can be quite expensive, so we befriended the tour leaders of the other two groups, hoping we could get on the boat with them, should they succeed in getting a boat.

After about 2 hours of waiting, one of the tour groups gave up. They were en route to somewhere farther in the north. But the other group, led by a very friendly guide named Victor, was hoping to wait out the morning and midday locos hauls and catch a boat in the afternoon.

Image hosted by

Actually, I should be more specific. The whole second group that was not willing to wait. There was one couple that had been with the group that began to get testy and eventually demanded to be returned to La Serena. Clearly they did not make the effort to enjoy the opportunity to see the local economy at work and to get to know the livings of other peoples lives. They just wanted to see some damn penguins, and they'd paid good money for it, so they deserved to.

Care to guess their nationality? Yep. Rude American tourists. Some stereotypes are true.

Anyway, we were enjoying ourselves. Keenly following the fishermen's progress, but enjoying the clearing skies and the company of the other tour group. Around 1:30, we were told that there would be one last boat that might be able to help us, and it would be getting back around 3:00. Filling the vacancies in their group after the departure of the Rude Americans, we joined Victor's group for lunch.

At lunch, we enjoyed some local fish which I've forgotten the name of (but that Victor joked was dolphin), and conversation with people from Israel, France, Colombia, Germany, and Chile. It was awesome.

At 3:00 we returned to the pier, and were given good news. We had a boat!

The day so far:

Day 15 - roadtrip...

The end of the last post may have been a bit of an oversimplification. The truth is that even after we made it out of Ovalle, we weren't too sure where we were headed. It was after 10 kilometers and some rising tension between the navigator and driver before a road sign confirmed that we were indeed headed in the right direction. What we didn't realize was how long we would be headed in that direction...

Image hosted by

We anticipated about 80 kilometers of smooth driving up the valley to the town of Hurtado, a tough drive up over the mountains for 44 kilometers, and drop down into the gorgeous and green Valley de Elqui. We were getting a bit ahead of ourselves, beacause 80 kilometers takes an awfully long time when you're averaging less than 35 km/hour.

I hope that this does not come across as any kind of griping. Because at the time, we certainly weren't complaing about the drive. It really was quite beautiful. We were seeing the Chilean countryside in a way suitable for portrayal in the richly colored and glossy pages of National Geographic. Small towns, or rather very small villages were 10-20 houses of bright and contrasting colors were perched on the hillsides. On the narrow road, we slowly wound past adobe walls, thatched roofs, large stands of flowering cactus.

Image hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by

After about 2 hours of this unrelenting beauty, we decided to stretch our legs and have a quick drink. We were beginning to think we were getting too much of a good thing. So we were mistakenly relieved when we arrived at the turnoff toward Vicuña.

Within 20 seconds of turning onto this road, I was thinking it was a bad idea. I'd had a fair amount of experience driving on dirt/gravel roads in Washington, and I've dodged a fair number of potholes driving in San Francisco. But this was hellacious combination of all the bad features of any road I'd driven. For any given stretch, the road was composed of loose gravel, embedded rocks, hard-packed clay, windy turns, steep inclines, or some evil combination thereof.

It's difficult to say if it helped that the views were absolutely stunning. It made the harrowing driving seem worth the effort, but it made staring at the road that much less appealing, and harder to do.

Image hosted by

A few minutes later, we were discussing how it was possible that we were in the most desolate place we'd ever been. The only signs of life were scrub brush and cactus. We'd seen one car in the last hour, which we'd just passed.

As Murphy would have it, right about that time the steering started pulling to the left. A quick stop (doesn't take long to decelerate from our speed of 10 km/h to 0) and a peek out the door confirmed it. We had a flat tire. We were 15 km from the start of the road, and 29 from the end of the road.

Perhaps Peugeot has little faith in tire durability, or maybe there are consumer-friendly rental car requirements in Chile, but either way, we were incredibly lucky that our car was equipped with a full-sized spare tire. Thus, we were, ahem, spared from becoming vulture meat, assuming we could successfully change the tire.

With surprisingly little difficulty (see the pictures for an abbreviated 'How to Change a Tire on a Desert Mountain Road'), we got the tire changed, and we were on our way. Our very, very, very cautious way.

Image hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by

I'm quite happy to report that, aside from some very grimy palms (Julie -- wisely -- did not want to waste our remaining water on cleaing wheel grime off my hands), the rest of the drive provided no further physical discomfort.

Herds of goats and then more pisco grapevines welcomed us down the valley into Vicuña, just as the sun was falling behind the mountains. We scrapped our plans to stop at one of the mountaintop observatories and made our way to La Serena.

Image hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by

Fortunately, "Hostel Jofre" (the sign on the front door includes the quotes) had not given our very small room to anyone else, and we were able to check in. Payment was another issue, though, as we were repeatedly denied cash from the nearby ATMs. Nearing the end of our emotional ropes, we tried one last ATM after returning to the hostel to ask for help. Those bound for La Serena take note: the ScotiaBank ATM is often the only cajero automatico that will serve foreign customers.

We wolfed down some long overdue food, giant and delicious sandwiches from Café Colonial, hiked back to our room at the hostel, and collapsed for a night of sleep.

The whole drive (buckle up!):

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Day 15 - Roadtrip!

Up to this point on the trip, there had been a relatively packed schedule. Certainly not consistent activities from day to day, but consistently busy, whether catching buses, hiking, whatever. So there was a fair amount of mental adjustment (as well as the obvious repacking for warmer weather) when we got ready to head out for our northern roadtrip. Aside from having places to stay booked for the first two nights, there was nothing solid. And that kind of freedom is a different kind of vacation altogether.

Before we actually got out the door on that vacation, though, Paul and Curtis returned to Pablo's apartment. They'd just come in on a bus, back from the mid-south, Puerto Montt and Chiloe. Aside from a few weather problems, it sounded like they'd had a great time. It was good to hear that they'd had such a good time, as we prepared to hit the road again.

I ate a bowl of Cookie Crisp with Loncho Leche (Chilean refrigerate-after-opening milk that comes in a cardboard carton) for breakfast, fueling up for the drive.

The plan in general was to drive north on Ruta 5, the Panamerican highway, and to spend the night in La Serena. Easy enough, because of our alternate route in the car the night before, we knew where we needed to get to leave town.

No troubles, we were on the highway by 9:30.

On the four-lane divided highway, we were making good progress. And for those of us used to driving all distances in miles, driving distances measured in kilometers is a snap. They pass by so much faster! Why would you want to drive 60 mph when you could be driving 100 km/h? This alone justifies a switch to the metric system if you ask me.

The tolls on the highway were pretty hefty. For about 3 hours of northerly driving, I think we paid close to 7,000 pesos (~$14US). Not cheap, but this did include an amazing tunnel through a hill that brought us out to near to the coast.

Good for driving, but bad for views, it was a fairly overcast day.

After consultation of the Lonely Planet guidebook, we came up with a plan. Los Vilos, being one of the larger towns between Santiago and La Serena, and almost exactly halfway between the two, was chosen as a lunch stop. We saw about 50 restaurants in Los Vilos, roughly one for every person we saw in the town. Apparently over the summer it is a fairly busy working-class Chilean resort town, but at noon on an overcast spring Friday, there was an almost eery lack of people.

Nonetheless, we parked the car and went looking for an agreeable restaurant. I'm a little wary of eating at empty (or nearly) restaurants under any circumstances, let alone when they are empty seafood restaurants. A crowd of people can legitimitize an otherwise slightly dingy restaurant.

We ended up choosing one that at least had a very similar name as one remarked upon in the guidebook (Restaurant de los Pescadoras in the Caleta San Pedro). It overlooked the harbor where the fisherman tied off, or pulled in their colorfully painted wooden fishing boats (one was for sale if anyone's looking for a career change).
We ordered the waitress-recommended Lenguado a la plancha, a grilled whitefish that was quite salty in a good way, and a ceviche that was quite lemony in maybe not as good of a way. Also, buoyed by our experience with Locos (abalones) in the south, we ordered a Locos y Queso Empanada. It, too, was quite delicious, but suffered a bit of the too-much-fried-flavor that you can get in a cheap Indian samosa.

All in all it was fantastic, though, overlooking the boats that had earlier in the day been catching the fish we were eating. After lunch we took a stroll through the actual fish market and talked to one of the fishmongers for a bit, checking out a few beautiful Barracuda and other fish whose names now escape me.

Los Vilos pictures
Image hosted by

Perhaps emboldened by our full bellies, shortly after lunch, we decided to take the scenic route. Now, really, the whole drive had been pretty scenic, but Lonely Planet suggested a loop which would bring us up one scenic pisco valley (from Ovalle toward Hurtado), and then over a backroad to Vicuña, the main city in the Valle de Elqui, a valley known for its scenic vineyards (which supply grapes to make the brandy-like pisco).

It's always much more interesting to avoid major highways. Within 5 minutes of pulling off the Panamerican Highway, we were winding down a dirt sideroad toward a church, which had been advertised with an abnormally large sign. La iglesia de Barraza was where we were headed. Pulling into the town was like pulling onto the set of Desperado, or Zorro, or any other movie that features a half-abandoned, all-old pueblo in the desert.

Image hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by

Mustering enough courage to get out of the car, we strolled around a little and took a look inside the one shop (a giftshop near the church) that seemed open. We were quite surprised to end up conversing for a short while with a young bus driver, who led tours senior citizens from La Serena on tours of the small town Barraza. As described by the bus driver, Barraza was 'a special place', with the church first constructed around 1650 (give or take?). The whole place certainly did seem like a step back in time.

Another 40 km or so brought us into Ovalle, a surprisingly large (~200,000 people), and not-too-surprisingly disorganized agricultural city.

Image hosted by

We didn't really do anything there except for get disoriented and lost.

After getting back on track thanks to the instructions of a kind woman, we were at least headed toward Hurtado, driving up a beautiful valley, with modest country homes.

Image hosted by

More on the way...

Day 14 - Strait to Santiago

One of the big accomplishments of the conversation the previous evening had been to arrange transportation to the airport. José Miguel, being connected in the Punta Arenas tourism world, scheduled a cab for us at noon the next day.

Knowing that that airport transportation was under control, we slept in a bit the next morning. We got up, showered, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, with CNN International playing on the TV in the background -- just one example of the numerous little steps our hosts had taken to make us feel comfortable and welcome.

So we strolled east one block, and then down the Avenida Cristobal Colón toward the fabled treacherous waters of the Strait of Magellan. Anyone with a passing interest in history could tell you that the water and land near Punta Arenas is notorious. Quick direct translations of a few nearby sites will give you the same idea: Land of the fire (Tierra del Fuego), Port Famine (Puerto Hambre), Sound of Last Hope (Seno Ultima Esperanza). But on the late spring day that we were there, the sun was shining, and the water was like glass.

So we walked right up, reached our hands off the end of the continent, and dipped them into the Strait. (To give credit where due, we got the idea from Becky). We also paused to enjoy the weathered playground at the end of the boulevard, and a number of the monuments honoring various people who had passed through, facing weather far worse than we saw.

Image hosted by Image hosted by

Other than that, it was a relatively uneventful day of travel. The cab to the airport showed up at noon exactly. I mean 12:00 to the second. For all the talk about Chileans having a different interpretation of punctuality...

With the sunny and clear skies, we had spectacular views from the plane. Similar glaciers that looked mammothly static from the ground took on new, dynamic characteristics when viewed from above, where the debris that they had been grinding off mountainsides was striped along their axis of motion.

Pictures from the plane (

At Santiago, we picked up the rental car. Budget Rent-A-Car operates in a very similar manner in Chile as it does here. Which was good, because even with a couple weeks of exercise, our Spanish skills could not keep pace with the agent that was helping us.

Our trusty steed for the next few days was to be a 5 speed Peugeot 206. While the French supermini was cute, we couldn't even fit half of our baggage in the trunk. It's no wonder roadtrips are less common in Europe...

Only a few wrong turns later -- always listen to your navigator -- and we were back at Pablo's apartment.

We met up with Morgan to share one last bottle of Chilean wine before she flew back, and then called it a night.
Image hosted by

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Day 13 -Penguins are real! (updated)

Image hosted by

Departing again from Erratic Rock II on a 7:00 bus meant another early start. Luckily, the TV alarm clock worked well again, and we were able to catch our bus after another nice breakfast (prepared and delivered the night before by Marcela, the owner of the hostel).

We were also lucky, that our laundry was, uh, done. Having brought nothing more to the south than what we were going to take on the trails in Torres del Paine, we were in desparate need of fresh laundry before heading back to Punta Arenas. As luck would have it, we found out that Isabel, a friend of Marcela's would do our laundry overnight for us. Although we'd planned on finding a laundromat and doing it ourselves, it was really hard to argue with the convenience of the deal, even if the price was a bit high. Maybe we should have argued a bit.

It became clear after agreeing to have her do the laundry that Isabel did not believe in using dryers. Not really a big deal, but our laundry was well short of dry when it was delivered at 6:30 the next morning. Even worse, as we donned our clothes, the stale reek of cigarette smoke became immediately apparent. Still, better damp and smokified than stinking like 3 days of hard hiking (at least I kept telling myself that).

After arriving in Punta Arenas around 11 (Bus Sur on the return trip also), we set out to find a place to stay for the night. We were lucky that Julie´s steel-trap memory led us to the ¨Downtown Hostel¨, about 8 blocks from downtown. We were even luckier that they had a vacancy in the overflow section, given that the town was packed with the binational youth games, essentially an olympics for the youth of Argentina and Chile. The overflow section was actually the son´s room in the owner´s house, now that he´d left for college. It was great, and we got some friendly advice from Sonia, and later from her husband, Jose Miguel on trying to make it to see the nearby penguin colonies.

I say trying to make it, because due to the liveliness of the town with all of the extra visitors around, the boat cruise to the Isla Magdalena was booked ´super full´. So we bought bus tickets for the 4:00 departure to the Seno Otway penguin colony (a significantly smaller, privately owned penguin reserve about an hour north of Punta Arenas), and went to get some lunch.

Bad news...
Our internet store is closing for the evening, so you´ll be left in suspense.

Lunch was relatively simple. A few empanadas from a fairly tourist-friendly place in Punta Arenas (Fabrica was its name). These were again the slightly more healthy and much more delicious baked variety of empanada (horneado), which seemed to be favored in the south over the fried variety (frito) more commonly found in the north.

After lunch we went to conduct the usual important business on the internet, and found a fairly nice looking place to do so. Apparently we were not the only ones who thought it was a nice looking place, as we ran into Morgan sipping a coffee in the back of the cafe. Apparently she had seen us boarding the bus to leave Torres del Paine the day before, also. It was quite a coincidence running into her again, though, and soon Becky and Terri came back from the errands that they had been running also. After a little more discussion (including about the stellar election results!), and they went to get some lunch also, but not before determining that we'd be seeing them again out at Seno Otway.

We'd seen mention of the Sent Otway tours in a couple of guidebooks, and they seemed a much more reasonably-priced adventure than the Isla Magdalena tours. The way to keep them more reasonable, though, was to simply buy a bus ticket. Our Bus Fernandez fare was 5,000 pesos, a bargain next to the Turisma Comapa tour that we nearly bought and would have cost 20,000 pesos, with the only added benefit being a small snack on the ride to the colony.

It was a great thing that we just bought the bus ticket. Although the 'bus' was actually one of those improbably narrow Mitsubishi passenger vans, our driver was incredibly friendly, and stopped many times along the road to point out various wildlife (ranging from rabbits, to more ñandús, to the unusual skunk-like chingue). Upon reaching the colony, we had about one and a half hours to stroll along the boardwalk and watch the penguins.

That's right, I said watch the penguins. Yes, we've all seen penguins in the zoo. But never did I imagine that I'd ever see real penguins, living in the wild. It was surreal, seeing these Magellan's Penguins waddling about their business. In surprisingly organized lines, they bobbed along from the water to their burrows. They were unbelievably cute, and amazing to observe up close and with the binoculars (thanks, mom and dad!) preening their feathers and building their nests within their burrows.

Amongst the penguin crowd on the beach, there was a lone Emporer Penguin (you know, the starring breed of March of the Penguins). Much larger, and sporting arguably more formal plumage, he stood on the beach preening and looking a bit morose. What was he doing there?

Magellan's Penguins, we'd been informed, return to the same place every year to mate with the same partner. Even more remarkable, a penguin will become sterile if its one partner should die. Newly armed with that information about Magellan's Penguins, we extrapolated a bit, and guessed that it was the remaining half of a mating pair of Emporers that called Seno Otway home.

The real story, though, is somewhat more exotic, though maybe no less lonely.

We were told that the lone Emporer, looking large and awkwardly out of place, like the first of the penguin classmates to hit puberty, was not actually from Seno Otway. Rather, it had been found out at sea, stranded, and picked up by a well-meaning fisherman. This fisherman, the story goes, then brought the penguin back to one of the places where he knew that penguins lived, Seno Otway.

Los Pingüinos (Joy's favorite Spanish word!):

We'd made plans with Morgan, Becky and Terri for dinner at Bar Sotitos, which had been recommended by our friend Mario on the flight to Punta Arenas. "Not really a bar!" he assured us, but "less refined" than many other options in Punta Arenas. Clearly, his definition of 'less refined' was a bit different than ours (i.e. that restaurant was completely out of our league), though, and we opted for a tasty, cheap Italian option, O Solo Mio (also South of the Plaza de Armas). The gnocchi with chunky king crab cream sauce was different and delicious, and the lasagna was bubbly and hearty. mmmm.

After some fun dessert with the girls, they were off to catch another red eye flight. And we were off to the hostel for some entertaining spanish conversation with our hosts before heading to bed. What a day. Penguins!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Day 12 - Chileno-Torres Del Paine

We got an early start, waking up around 5:30. We were hoping to make it up to the mirador of the Torres shortly after sunrise. We hiked as fast as we could through thick forest, before reaching a boulder field separating us from the lookout. Navigating and climbing up and between the boulders took nearly an hour, and left us tired and sweaty.

Luckly, at the top, we were rewarded with clear weather (apparently somewhat rare -- Morgan and the other girls from UCSF were rewarded with whiteout/blizzard conditions), allowing us to see the spectacular granite towers. I really should say more here about the awesome size and shape of the towers, but I´ll instead again refer you to the pictures:

From that point, it was all downhill. We hustled back down to camp, took down the tent, and had some breakfast. It was then a 2 hour march down the valley to reach our endpoint of the W, La Hostería Las Torres.

Well, we thought that was our endpoint, but we ended up having to hike another kilometer to the Refugio Las Torres instead, where we caught a shuttle that took us out to the park entrance.

It was there that we caught our bus back to Puerto Natales, ending an unbelivably beautiful time in Torres Del Paine.

We were lucky enough to get a room again at the Erratic Rock II hostel. We grabbed a delicous post-backpacking dinner of pizza and hamburgers, and then crashed in a wonderfully comfortable bed.